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Saturday, 3 June 2017

Using Science

It is a common assumption in the contemporary world that science provides solutions to otherwise-intractable problems, such as disease, hunger and climate change; as well as presenting governments and individuals with ethical and practical dilemmas. On balance, it is the general view that humanity has gained more than it has lost [and suffered] from the innovations that science has brought to use over the past few centuries. It is also a widely held view that the more science, and the better the science, that a country can produce determines that state's place in the hierarchy of wealth [per capita and in the aggregate] in the world and in the strength of its defences.

Some states, most notably North Korea, have developed nuclear and ballistic capabilities almost to the exclusion of all other factors, such as the general nutrition of the population. This is generally seen as a 'bad thing', and today the USA and China are jointly sponsoring proposals at the United Nations to increase sanctions against North Korea.

The United Kingdom has a very special record in scientific and technological innovation, which extends from the sixteenth century to the present day, and from biomedical sciences to astrophysics and a huge range of advanced engineering. One aspect of the development and application of scientific invention that is easily forgotten in the contemporary context is that a major component of British scientific advance has been the deployment of that science by the state.The defence requirements for newer and more destructive weapons has funded much of the innovation that has been funded over the centuries, and the current unprecedented level of cuts in defence expenditure is having a significantly detrimental effect on research and development, which is only partially mitigated by the income the defence industries receive from contracts in the USA and Saudi Arabia, in particular. Cuts in the real spending of the health service are already impacting on revenues to the big pharmacological companies, and there have been rumblings that the companies will have to take major trials of innovative drugs to countries where the hospitals can afford to buy them. The catalogue of British innovations that have been sold off to foreign investors because of a pathetic joint failure by the British state, the banking sector and large corporations to invest in their development is depressingly long.

Donald Trump's promises to spend a trillion dollars on US infrastructure projects will greatly improve flow of cash to innovative firms who will bring more modern techniques to bear in waterway management, road construction and maintenance, bridge-building and so forth. Meanwhile, the president's determination to maintain the defence of the USA will necessarily provide funding for new ideas and a stimulus to further exploration of what may become possible. The funds that the rich put into medical research, through their foundations and personall as users of innovations, will maintain a momentum in American pharmacology that will magnify the gap by which that country pulls away from the UK.

The Conservative policy of cuts and caution will accelerate the relative decline of Britain. The state has always been the most massive investor in science and technology, through the defence department and in nationalised sectors [from energy generation to the health service]. In proposing renationalisation of utilities the Labour party has not mentioned this aspect of the case, but it is powerful: inadvertently, the Labour manifesto is massively more friendly to scientific and technological advance than is the Conservatives'. The crass 'anti-business' imputations of Mrs May's ramblings reinforce one's impression of her complete incomprehension of how the economy works. Donald Trump's mercantilism may be sounder that the blathering of the Econocracy: Mrs May has demonstrated her economic illiteracy most convincingly. The way that politicians have come together across Europe - and, indeed, across the continents - to lecture to Donald Trump about his recent decision on the Paris Accord shows the extent of the grip that the Econocracy has over the mindset that pervades politics. I am looking forward to seeing what alternative Mr Trump will put forward for the renegotiation of the Paris deal: it may well make his critics look pretty silly.

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